The National Hockey League's Atlantic Division has some of the most intense rivalries in all of sports. Every Ranger fan knows that when the Rangers are playing a division rival, especially the Devils or the Flyers, we can expect to see the gloves come off and grown men to throw their bare knuckles at one another's faces. Now I know we had a lengthy and exhausting debate about fighting's place in hockey last season, that isn't what this article is about (but it would help to keep that in the back of your head as you are reading this).
In this article I am going to take you on a little tour of the arms race of goons in the Atlantic Division and try to understand why teams think it is necessary to dress players who play under ten minutes of ice time a game. We're going to take a closer look at the culture and tradition of fighting in the Atlantic Division and the players who we can expect to continue that tradition this upcoming season.
Join me after the jump for a closer look at the arms race for goons in the Atlantic Division...
The New York Rangers had more fighting majors than every other team in the league last year with sixty-five. That means that the Rangers were issued a fighting major four out of every five games the team played. Brandon Prust led the entire league in fighting majors with twenty and both Mike Rupp and Stu Bickel were in the top fifteen in the league in total fighting majors. It is safe to say that the Rangers were a fight-happy team last year, but they weren't alone in the Atlantic Division. The Philadelphia Flyers were issued fifty-seven fighting majors last year, which was good for fourth in the league.
Although the Devils, Penguins, and Islanders weren't nearly as belligerent as the Flyers or Rangers they each carry well-known enforcers and have players who are more than capable of answering the bell, especially against division rivals. Below is a list of the players who dropped the gloves over five times last season and their Atlantic Division team this year (players added this offseason are indicated with an asterisk).
New York Rangers: Mike Rupp, Arron Asham*, Michael Haley*, and Stu Bickel.
New York Islanders: Eric Boulton*, Matt Martin, and Matt Carkner*.
New Jersey Devils: Krys Barch*, Cam Janssen, and David Clarkson.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Tanner Glass* and Deryk Engelland.
Philadelphia Flyers: Zac Rinaldo, Wayne Simmonds, Tom Sestito, and Jody Shelley.
There are plenty of imports from other divisions but many of the names on the list above were seen on different Atlantic Division teams over the last few seasons (including three players who changed allegiances this offseason alone). This curious trend has always fascinated me because I've always wondered why Atlantic Division teams seem to be unoriginal in their pursuit of players to fill the role of enforcer. The Rangers, in particular, seem to only sign tough guys from division rivals or bring in the biggest, meanest guy they can find in the league.
So why is fighting so prevalent in the Atlantic Division? Is it all a part of the tradition of the great rivalries and aggressive, edge-of-your seat hockey that we've all enjoyed for as long as most of us can remember or is it something else? To be clear, I am not suggesting that fighting and enforcers aren't exclusive to the Atlantic Division, but I think that the teams in the Atlantic seem to have the biggest stockpile of players who don't shy away from fighting.
Fighting almost certainly puts more people in the seats than it drives away. Even those of us who abhor fighting in hockey and think it should be taken out of the game sometimes can't help but jump to our feet and get swept up in the spectacle that is the hockey fight. Few rivalries in the league are as intense as those that can be found in the Atlantic Division and for many hockey fans great fights are more memorable than many great goals. Is there any Ranger fan who doesn't grin ear to ear when you ask them if they remember Shanahan and Brashear at center ice? But can anyone vividly remember more than a handful of Shanahan's goals when he was a Ranger?
As long as fighting is still a part of the professional game, I expect we'll see the Atlantic Division home to plenty of fights because interdivisional games are overflowing with drama, energy, and intensity and have been for as long as anyone can remember. Though many of us may not be comfortable with it, fighting will always be part of the history and tradition of the Atlantic Division and its rivalries.
Like many Ranger fans I groan and mutter obscenities when I hear about the tough guys the Rangers sign in the offseason year after year, it is a need that Glen Sather seems to think is paramount for the team and its success. I can't ever say I will support it but I think I am slowly starting to understand it.
Teams in the Atlantic seem to all carry a few players who are capable of dropping the gloves and answering the bell for their team. Thankfully we are seeing more players like David Clarkson, Milan Lucic, and Brandon Prust who can truly play the game and excel at it while still having plenty of sandpaper and toughness in their game. The recent rule changes to speed up the game have bred out the sluggish tough guys of old but it appears that there will always be players, especially in the Atlantic Division, who are willing to drop the gloves for their teammates, for themselves, and for the fans.
What do you guys think of the Rangers' recent tradition of bringing in tough guys year after year and the tradition of fighting in the Atlantic Division? Does fighting contribute to what makes the rivalries so great or is it a byproduct?